Ethan Hawke Was Hesitant To Play Villains, And Then He Did The Black Phone

In Scott Derrickson's "The Black Phone," due out in theaters on June 24, 2022, Ethan Hawke plays a kidnapper dubbed The Grabber by the press. His modus operandi is to snatch children into his van, carry them to his basement room, and hold them prisoner for days. To what dark end, who can say? There is a black telephone on the wall — the film is set in 1978, so it's a nice hefty polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride telephone — and The Grabber doesn't seem to know it is able to receive calls from beyond the grave. The Grabber's latest victim, played by Mason Thames, receives advice on how to escape from his basement prison following instructions from his captor's previous victims. 

Hawke has been acting in Hollywood since his youth, having starred in everything from low-fi talky indie dramas to sinister ghost stories and gigantic blockbusters. Hawke has always proven to be incredibly versatile as a performer, playing priests and vampires with equal aplomb. And while Hawke has played dodgy or monstrous characters in the past — his space procurer character from "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" is definitely on the shady side — it's rare that he's played an out-and-out villain. "The Black Phone" is one of the rare instances where he plays an unapologetically evil person. 

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Hawke talked about the acting challenges "The Black Phone" afforded him — notably that he was required to wear a demonic mask in most of his scenes, covering his facial instrument as an actor. He also was reluctant to play an evil character in the fear that audiences would be unable to see him any other way afterward.

Greek chorus

When it came to wearing a mask, Ethan Hawke was wise enough to observe that masks have been used in acting going back to the times of ancient Greece. In Greek theater traditions, stock characters would be recognized by their masks and would often be accompanied by a chorus of other masked players. This was a new opportunity to mature as an actor and delve into physical acting Hawke had been utterly uninterested in as a younger man. He told Entertainment Weekly:

"Scott [Derrickson] wanted me to do a part in a mask for an entire film, and all of a sudden I feel like I'm doing Greek drama; he allowed me to give a performance in the middle of a horror movie ... [T]hings that I was bored senseless by when I was 18 and now see as keys to making this profession interesting to me for the next 25 years."

So the mask was not necessarily antithetical to acting. But for further diffusion of his anxiety, Hawke also took a great deal of comfort from a particular Bob Dylan lyric:

"There's a great Bob Dylan line in that Scorsese doc ['Rolling Thunder Revue'] where he says that if somebody's got a mask on, you know they're telling the truth, and if they don't have a mask on, you know they're lying. That was on top of my brain; the scariest thing about [my character] is that he doesn't want you to see him."

Derrickson took a risk in asking Hawke to play the part; he knew Hawke had a stated aversion to playing villains. In an interview with SyFy Wire, however, Derrickson recalls receiving an utterly creepy voicemail from Hawke as the actor's way of accepting the part: 

"I sent him the script anyway and that night he left me a voicemail in this menacing voice, and he said, 'I'm gonna murder the f*** out of you ... It's gonna hurt really, really bad.' It was a line in the script, and that was how he was letting me know he was going to do it."

Why no villains?

In Entertainment Weekly, Ethan Hawke revealed a theory he had about playing villains in movies: As actors like Béla Lugosi or Boris Karloff, Robert Englund or Tony Todd might be able to attest to, once you become associated with a monster, you become pigeonholed as that monster. Hawke's idea was that playing a villain is like letting a genie out of a bottle. He told Entertainment Weekly:

"I've always had this theory that when you teach an audience how to see the demon inside you, they don't un-see it for the rest of your career. Jack Nicholson can be playing an accountant and you're still waiting for him to explode like he did in 'The Shining.' But I realized I'm on the other side of 50 and it's time to put a new tool in the tool kit. Villains might be my future."

Hawke can also be seen playing a villainous character in the Disney+ series "Moon Knight," a TV adjunct of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His character is one he described as "a sane lunatic," one who was inspired by David Koresh, but also Carl Jung. Melodramatic supervillains aren't Hawke's style, however, so he felt he had to dig deeper into the character to find his real passions: 

"I was always a little apprehensive; there's a certain kind of actor that really excels in that universe, and I'm still not sure I'm one of them ... The uber-rich villain mastermind isn't interesting to me. I love the ones who believe that they're a good person and that's why they have to kill you. That I find really terrifying."

If Hawke's multi-decade career is anything to go by, he will nimbly occupy the part of killers and villains as he sees fit. 

"The Black Phone" is in theaters on June 24. "Moon Knight" is currently airing on Disney+.